Judiciary Considers Scrapping 'Ancient Documents' Rule

A question for trial lawyers today: Have you ever used the ancient documents exception to the hearsay rule?

I must say, I’ve never heard someone use it, as there’s usually another way to skin the cat. And if my impression is correct that its use is rare, then maybe having the rule be eliminated may not be a bad thing.

What got me thinking about this was a story this week about an examination of that very exception by some learned folks. Some on the federal judiciary’s evidence rules advisory committee fear that the growing prevalence of electronic documents—which essentially may last forever—may mean the exception swallows the rule.

As the news story reports, “Now that documents can be stored electronically for long periods of time, a committee of federal judges that reviews the evidence rules is worried courts will face a flood of requests to admit documents under the exception.”

One law professor who teaches evidence says she thinks this change is a good idea:

Professor Liesa Richter, Univ. of Oklahoma College of Law

Professor Liesa Richter, Univ. of Oklahoma College of Law

“Age is no guarantee of reliability,” said the University of Oklahoma College of Law’s Liesa Richter. “Now that we have this flood of electronically stored information that never goes away—it doesn’t disappear ever—[there are] just so many factual assertions out there electronically that will be available for savvy lawyers to dig up and admit. I think it is a real problem and a real concern.”

U.S. District Judge William Sessions III chairs the advisory committee on evidence rules, and he says, “A document does not become reliable just because it is old; and a document does not magically become reliable enough to escape the rule against hearsay on the day it turns 20. The committee concluded that the exception has been tolerated because it has been used so infrequently, and usually because there is no other evidence on point.”

Judges and law professors coming together to agree there’s more to reliability than age? Never thought I’d see the day.

You can read the whole story here.

So what do you think? Tempest in a teapot? Or are there good reasons to scrap the “ancient documents” rule? Who knows? There may be a magazine article or guest blog post in your future!